When a marriage ends, it’s not uncommon for one spouse to feel more anger over the disruption to the status quo and act out against the other partner, says Toronto family law lawyer Gary Gottlieb.
The retaliation frequently plays out in the form of a protracted divorce process, or if there are children, a bitter custody battle, he says.
Sometimes, one parent is so hostile that they persistently denigrate the other parent’s personality and parenting skills, convincing the child that they may be at risk with the other parent. This phenomenon is known as parental alienation, says Gottlieb, whose practice focuses on high-conflict family law and child protection matters.
“Parental alienation is a factor in about 15 per cent of my cases. It occurs when a child becomes estranged from one parent as the result of the psychological manipulation by the other,” he explains.
Alienators want to punish and get retribution for the breakup of the perfect cocoon they believed they were in, writes child psychiatrist Christine B.L. Adams.
“They are determined to have vengeance in the way that most upsets the other parent. They also want to ensure their children continue to deliver emotional care to them,” she says.
Mental health issues often at the root
In most cases, the alienator is the primary parent with sole or de facto custody of the children, Gottlieb explains.
“Often, the parent is suffering with some personality disorder, such as narcissistic personality disorder or generalized anxiety disorder,” he says. “Contrary to popular opinion, it occurs with both mothers and fathers.”
The negative behaviour patterns frequently begin even before the spouses separate, when the marriage is in the breakdown phase, Gottlieb adds.
“Months before the couple splits, the primary caregiver begins a campaign to alienate the other parent. They will become more possessive of the child and actively exclude the other parent. If the other parent tries to get involved in caregiving activities, the denigrating parent aims to convince the child s/he is useless,” he notes.
Often, the alienating parent convinces the children that the target parent doesn’t truly care about them or is only fighting for custody as a way to hurt the “real loving parent,” Gottlieb adds.
“The parent might say to the child, ‘your father is only trying to get custody so he won’t have to pay child support,’ or ‘your mother is only doing this to harass me; she doesn’t really love you,’” he says.
In extreme cases, Gottlieb says the parent will try to implant memories into the child as to how they were physically or sexually abused by the other parent, starting at an early age when the child has limited recollection.
Court focuses on best interests of the child
Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is a term coined by the late forensic psychiatrist Richard Gardner in 1985 to describe a phenomenon he witnessed where children were being turned against one parent, usually as the result of a divorce or acrimonious custody battle.
Gardner described PAS as a “disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It is caused by a combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the targeted parent.”
Gottlieb says the concept of parental alienation has evolved over the years. Today, the courts will often only make a determination that a child has been alienated when they see cogent evidence of drastic severing of all ties between parent and child.
“For example, the courts have found it difficult to conclude that a child has been alienated when he or she still wants a relationship with the other parent,” he says.
In a 2019 case, the court ordered a custody switch of the children –– from a mother to the father, who originally only had access to his two daughters –– after concluding the mother had “embarked upon a course of conduct since the birth of the children, and especially since separation, to attempt to eliminate the applicant from his own children’s lives.
“I accept the evidence of the clinician from the Office of the Children’s Lawyer that the respondent has intentionally attempted to alienate the children from the applicant’s life,” the judge wrote in his decision.
Gottlieb points out that the courts view access arrangements through the lens of the child’s bests interests. In cases where the child is reluctant to spend time with the target parent, the courts will often mandate reunification counselling, he adds.
“Sometimes, as alienation is deemed to be a child protection concern as ‘emotional harm,’ a child may be removed from the alienator’s care, placed into the care of the Children’s Aid Society or other kin home, while he or she undergoes reunification therapy. Isolation from the perpetrator can be a drastic but effective solution,” Gottlieb notes.
Signs of parental alienation
In the more than 33 years Gottlieb has been practising, he has observed some telltale signs to indicate parental alienation may be present:
Setting the other parent up for failure. “When the children are going to the access parent for an overnight visit, the alienating parent often won’t send a change of clothes for them. S/he will ensure the children aren’t bathed. That puts stress on the access parent to jump through hoops to ensure the children are comfortable. It further adds to the discomfort of the children, which they connect to the access visit,” he says.
Invoking the help of third parties. “Frequently, alienators will convince their community that the access parent is deficient. When the child experiences that everyone around them has a negative view of their parent, they come to believe it must be true. Public shaming through social media is also common,” Gottlieb says.
Sabotaging extracurricular activities. “Alienating parents don’t take their children to the piano lesson or the baseball game on time. Sometimes they invent excuses to not take the child to activities and blame it on the other parent, saying, ‘Your father didn’t pay for it’ or ‘your mother didn’t get you the right equipment.’”
It’s critical to act quickly if you and your child are experiencing parental alienation, Gottlieb says.
“Time is of the essence. The alienated parent should take immediate steps to get an access order enforced by the court,” he says. “The longer she or he waits, the more alienated the child becomes and the less open the child will be to having a positive relationship with the target parent.”
From a legal standpoint, third-party evidence is very important.
“The access parent can take steps to become more involved, for example, with the child’s teachers, by participating in parent council, taking the child to medical and dental appointments — to demonstrate they are a positive role model,” Gottlieb says.
“Offering counselling at the outset in writing — is critical, as well. Third-party evidence and evidence of a willingness to work with the child and the alienating parent (which is often resisted or sabotaged) lends credibility to the alienation argument and bolsters the targeted parent as an appropriate caregiver. Courts must have this evidence if you plan to succeed.”
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